To the outside, the adulation that Leeds United supporters hold for Marcelo Bielsa may appear strange, bordering on fanatical, perhaps even delusional. But to those who have followed his every move over four exhilarating years at Elland Road, his departure leaves a hole not only in the dugout but also in the heart.
In Chile, they call themselves “widows of Bielsa”. The same sentiment can be found at Marseille and Athletic Bilbao, teams who look back on the Argentinian’s time with wide eyes and palpable nostalgia. Leeds are at the beginning of this undoubtedly painful process, coming to terms with life post-Bielsa, a life that will never quite be the same again.
Discussing a football manager in such reverential terms might seem hyperbolic. However, what Bielsa has done for the club and the city in many ways transcends sport. He is a man who sees the corporate, avaricious, sportswashing modern game for what it is, yet managed to navigate his way through it all and still hold on to his principles: decency, humility and an unwavering work ethic.
Without wishing to get too existential, he has made fans question why they bother watching football in the first place. Is it for trophies? Not unless you follow a cabal of elite clubs. Is it about nicking a goal and holding on for a result? You might as well go balance the books in the boardroom. Is it about entertainment, identity and sticking two fingers up at anyone who calls you reckless? You bet.
It’s why Leeds supporters were still singing his name even after the poor performances that resulted in his cruel sacking. It’s why Leeds supporters will sing his name long after he has gone. It’s why England midfielder Kalvin Phillips wrote on Sunday: “You saw in me what I didn’t even see in myself.”
In many ways, the rise of Phillips embodies all the work Bielsa has done. Like most of the squad he inherited in 2018, Phillips was drifting, searching for his role in a team of misfiring misfits flailing for land in the bottom half of the Championship. Stuart Dallas was half the player he is now, Mateusz Klich was deemed surplus to the extent he had been shipped out by the previous regime on loan to Utrecht.
Within seven weeks of pre-season training, Bielsa transformed the group into an entirely new team. They were comfortable on the ball, played one- and two-touch cushions all over the pitch, and never stopped running. It was as if someone had finally found the mains supply at Elland Road, plugging the old ground directly into the Northern Northern Powergrid and sending a surge of voltage pulsing through brains and bones.
New players have joined, but the team that currently hovers over the Premier League relegation zone still holds core members of the first game against Stoke City. If loyalty has proved to be the undoing of Bielsa, it is surely a fatal flaw worth celebrating.
For all his idiosyncrasies, his trips to Costa Coffee and Morrisons, his former flat above a Wetherby sweet shop, what shone brightest was Bielsa’s humble perspective. During the pandemic, when Leeds lost many club legends and the whole world faced a daunting new reality, it was a comfort to many that a man of integrity was leading the club. Throughout his reign Bielsa never criticised a referee, never blamed VAR or spoke in negative terms about any individual. When “Spygate” rumbled on he publicly chastised himself and paid the fine out of his own pocket. He was a man you wanted in your corner when life was out of control.
Bielsa was the best possible manager for Leeds at the best possible time. After so many years of stagnation, years of waste and anger, he proved the perfect antidote. In the early days there were constant fears that he would simply leave, that the Leeds curse would snare him, yet he stuck to his beliefs even after a catastrophic end to his first season.
And it wasn’t the grenade-wielding, pitch-invading Bielsa of his youth. It was a man who knew this may be the last major test of his guiding principles, a final shot at showing the world how football should be played.
Rarely can there ever have been a greater connection between supporters and manager. More than anything, he has allowed fans to dream again. His sacking doesn’t simply feel like the loss of a genius manager, rather, the loss of an old friend.
So long, El Loco.